Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis bought their first painting together in 1970, just four short years after marrying. As Richard Lang explained in a 1981 interview with Howard Droker, although the couple had initially envisioned a home decorated with “elegant simplicity” and without any art on the walls, a fortuitous decision was made, prompted by Jane, to make an exception for “a painting over the couch in the living room.” The work acquired was Franz Kline’s Painting No 11, 1951, a masterpiece which remained in pride of place over the living room sofa for the duration of their lives and became the impetus for what would arguably become one of the most important collections of twentieth-century art.
Driven by Jane’s enthusiasm and discerning eye, the Langs enthusiastically joined the burgeoning New York art world of the 1970s and 80s. They collected with determination, confidence and an unwavering commitment to acquiring the works that moved them both profoundly. They acquired only as many works as their Medina home could accommodate which throughout their lives they generously opened to friends, fellow collectors and museum tours in addition to lending their works for exhibitions. Richard and Jane were quickly drawn to Abstract Expressionism and, over a concentrated period, they thoughtfully and purposefully assembled a collection which is a masterclass in the movement, tracing its evolution and including encyclopaedic studies of key artists including Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. While Abstract Expressionism was the defining focus for their collection, the Langs were no less enthusiastic or astute in their decision to include what are now considered to be touchstone examples by twentieth-century European artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon.
Today, the Lang Collection belongs to the Friday Foundation, a private charitable organisation committed to working with its cultural partners to ensure the great works remaining in the collection will be enjoyed by the public and to support key art initiatives that were important to the Langs. A selection of work is being offered across Sotheby’s Contemporary and Impressionist & Modern Art sales in New York and London. Each piece selected for sale beautifully mirrors the larger collection and demonstrates the Langs’ exacting discipline as collectors as well as their enduring passion for art. The New York group is anchored by Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head from 1952 which is one of the most important works by the artist remaining in a private collection. In London, a mesmeric Colour Field painting by Morris Louis, executed in the final year of his life, presents the artist at the very apex of his practice. Proceeds from the sales will be used to support the foundation’s mission, a fitting epilogue to the Langs’ lifelong commitment to the arts and cultural institutions.
Executed in 1962, Morris Louis’s Number 21 is an arresting example of the artist’s Stripe paintings. This series, which many consider to be Louis’s most important and advanced, was the artist’s last before his untimely death in September 1962. The present painting comes from the Collection of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis: like so many other works in their superb collection, Number 21 is not only a visual powerhouse but also an academically important work. It represents the artist’s long pursuit of marrying form and colour, in his endeavour to push the annals of art history to the next level. Indeed, similar Stripe works are held in major museum collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Palm Springs Art Museum, California; and the Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan. Vibrant, bold, and optically alluring, Number 21 presents an opportunity to appreciate the artist at the very apex of his practice.
Louis’s seminal Stripe paintings were begun in early 1961, immediately after his Unfurled series. In these works, the artist continued focusing on the fundamental precepts that had launched his career, namely how to overcome the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic that had taken the art world by storm in the 1940s and ’50s, and develop a style of his own. He was greatly influenced by a visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio in 1953, where his friend the art critic Clement Greenberg first introduced him to Frankenthaler’s stain-soak technique through her masterpiece, Mountains and Sea (1952, National Gallery of Art, Washington). The Stripe series represents the culmination of Louis’s intense focus on colour and his quest to push painting forward, as explained by the curator E. A. Carmean, Jr., who commented that “color” is what Louis’s painting are “essentially about” (E. A. Carmean, Jr. cited in: Hilton Kramer, The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and Culture, 1972-1984, New York 1985, p. 202).
A member of the important Washington Color School alongside Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Sam Gilliam, Louis was concerned with the importance of colour and form. After the formative visit to Frankenthaler’s studio, Louis reached a turning point in his career. By soaking the canvas with paint, rather than painting onto its surface, the paint and the canvas became one. Through this important stylistic development, Louis successfully removed any emphasis on the artist’s hand and gesture; a markedly different style to the Abstract Expressionist paintings of his peers. With this technique, the fundamental focus shifted solely to colour and form. As the eminent curator John Elderfield commented, “It is as if the colors… are compressed into pillars that smoulder and glow; become yet hotter because of their velocity; and burn channels through the ambient surface, whose whiteness is sometimes warmed by their heat and sometimes seems icy in contrast” (John Elderfield in: Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Morris Louis, 1986, p. 74).
The present work is visually compelling for its ability to present colour as its own entity. Akin to other later Stripe paintings, Louis carefully controlled each vertical stripe, often with the aid of a palette knife, maintaining an even sense of saturated colour throughout the entire vertical length of each stripe. This evenness was a direct result of the development of ‘Acryloid F-10’ a new formula of Magna paint that was manufactured for Louis and Kenneth Noland in April 1960. The new paint was first used in the Unfurled series, but Louis continued to employ it with its maple syrup-like consistency for the Stripe series until the end of his life only two years later. In Number 21, there is a simultaneous sense of balance and tension; primary colours lead into secondary colours of greens and mustards, whilst stripes of unprimed No. 12 weight cotton duck punctuates the composition with unifying bands of non-colour.
Unlike previous Stripe paintings, where the bands of colour were centred, the surrounding raw canvas in Number 21 is off-centre and serves as an important balancing mechanism in the work. In these Stripe paintings, which Greenberg initially referred to as ‘Pillars of Fire’, Louis employed the use of a cheesecloth wrapped pole to regularise the ends of each stripe and further remove the sense of the artist’s touch from the work. Electrically charged and hypnotically engaging, Number 21 beautifully encapsulates the originality, complexity, and technical virtuosity of Louis’s unique pictorial vision.
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